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Pedestrians pass the Barneys New York department store on Monday. When a black teen came forward with a story of being detained after buying a $349 belt at the Manhattan luxury store, an already-fraught relationship between the New York Police Department and New York's minority communities became even more tense. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

Racial profiling claims at Barneys, Macy's: N.Y. attorney general probing (+video)

By Contributor / 10.29.13

Civil rights activist Al Sharpton was to meet Tuesday with Barneys New York’s CEO to discuss allegations of racial profiling at the luxury store.

Mr. Sharpton, of the National Action Network, has threatened a boycott of Barneys, after two black shoppers came forward this week with allegations that in separate incidents police had detained them on suspicion of stealing their expensive purchases from the high-end retailer. His meeting with Barneys CEO Mark Lee was scheduled for Tuesday morning at the National Action Network’s headquarters in Harlem.

Meanwhile, the New York Attorney General’s Office on Monday sent letters to both Barneys and Macy’s in an official probe of racial profiling at the stores. The two retailers have until Friday to provide information on their policies for stopping customers based on race, the New York Daily News reported.

"Attorney General [Eric] Schneiderman is committed to ensuring that all New York residents are afforded equal protection under the law," Kristen Clarke, head of the attorney general's Civil Rights Bureau, wrote to the two retailers' CEOs.

"The alleged repeated behavior of your employees raises troubling questions about your company's commitment to that ideal," the letters said.

The developments come amid an already-troubled relationship between the New York Police Department and the city’s minority communities and has put another spotlight on the city's pushback against persistent racism. 

Reports of racial profiling first surfaced last week when Trayon Christian, 19, a Queens student, filed suit against both Barneys and the NYPD in Manhattan Supreme Court for an alleged incident on April 29. In that incident, plainclothes officers stopped him a block away from the Barneys flagship store on Madison Avenue, where he had just purchased a $349 Ferragamo belt with his debit card, he said. He was held at the 19th Precinct for two hours before he was released, with no charges filed against him, he said.

Also, Kayla Phillips, 21, a nursing student from Canarsie in Brooklyn, told the New York Daily News that four plainclothes officers surrounded her three blocks from the same Barneys store, after she had purchased a $2,500 orange suede Céline bag with a debit card in February. Ms. Phillips said she plans to sue the NYPD.

Two Macy’s shoppers have made similar allegations of racial profiling. One of them, the actor Rob Brown of HBO's "Treme," said he was handcuffed and held for an hour after purchasing a $1,350 gold Movado watch at Macy's Herald Square, the Daily News said. In the other, Art Palmer, an exercise trainer from Brooklyn, said that police swarmed him after he purchased $320 worth of Polo shirts and ties at the same store, the Daily News reported.

Mr. Brown is suing the NYPD and Macy's. Mr. Palmer has filed a complaint with the Civilian Complaint Review Board in New York.

Macy's told the Daily News it was not involved in the incident with Brown. Barneys said in a statement that “no employee of Barneys New York was involved in the pursuit of any action with [Mr. Christian] other than the sale.”

“Barneys New York has zero tolerance for any form of discrimination and we stand by our long history in support of all human rights,” the statement said.

Following reports of the incidents, launched a petition asking Jay Z to cut all ties with Barneys, with which he is collaborating on a Christmas collection. When the superstar and man-of-the-street rapper made no immediate comment, he was pilloried on social media as betraying his previous stands for social justice.

In 2006, the Brooklyn native had banned Cristal champagne from his swanky nightclub after the company's CEO made racist remarks, the Daily News reported.

On Saturday, Jay Z defended his choice to continue working with Barneys, at least for the time being.

''I am against discrimination of any kind, but if I make snap [judgments], no matter who it's towards, aren't I committing the same sin as someone who profiles?” he wrote on his website, Life + Times, noting that a quarter of the proceeds from his collection would benefit the Shawn Carter Foundation, which helps low-income students.

“I am no stranger to being profiled and I truly empathize with anyone that has been put in that position,” he wrote. “Hopefully this brings forth a dialogue to effect real change.”

Racism has been a foregrounded issue in New York City in recent years, as pressure has mounted on the NYPD to ease its aggressive stop-and-frisk policies. In August, a federal judge ordered the NYPD to reform its stop-and-frisk program. Last month the judge, Shira Scheindlin of US District Court in Manhattan, also granted class-action status to a lawsuit brought by public housing residents and visitors who say they were illegally stopped in the buildings.

Ohio to use untested cocktail of drugs in upcoming execution

By Contributor / 10.28.13

Ohio said Monday that it will use an untested cocktail of two drugs in an execution scheduled for next month, after reporting that it does not have enough of the drug pentobarbital to carry out the death sentence.

Ohio is among the states that have in recent months reported shortages of pentobarbital, the drug used in 13 states for lethal injections, after the drug’s manufacturer announced last year that it would no longer sell the drug to prisons. The state’s announcement comes amid a debate over the legality of states tapping into alternative markets for supplies of lethal-injection drugs or turning to new, never before used drug cocktails.

The Danish manufacturer of pentobarbital, Lundbeck, banned the sale of its product to prisons in 2011 because of Denmark’s membership in the European Union, which opposes the US practice of capital punishment. The announcement sent states with death rows scrambling: Lundbeck holds the sole license to produce pentobarbital in the US. Most states had enough of the drug to get through to this September. After that, their reserves would expire.

Since then, corrections departments have been pressing for alternative drugs to carry out death penalty sentences. For some states, that has meant turning to a little regulated wing of the pharmaceutical market: compounding pharmacies, which custom brew drugs. Texas and Georgia have announced deals to purchase pentobarbital from compounding pharmacies but are now embroiled in federal lawsuits by death-row inmates, who are challenging the states' right to use the drugs. Pennsylvania and Colorado are also courting compounding pharmacies for lethal injection drugs but have put all executions on hold.

Just South Dakota has so far used drugs from compounding pharmacies to carry out executions. The state executed two convicts with the drugs in October of last year.

Meanwhile, other states have turned to invention, hoping to find a replacement drug for pentobarbital. Pentobarbital itself had been ushered in to replace the drug sodium thiopental in 2011, after its Illinois-based producer said it would not sell the drug to prisons.

Ohio says it will use a combination of the drugs midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a painkiller, in the execution of Ronald Phillips, scheduled for Nov. 14. The state said on Monday that it had looked for a compounding pharmacy as an alternative pentobarbital supplier but had been unsuccessful.

Both tactics of procuring lethal injection drugs have come under fire from anti-death penalty advocates in recent months, The New York Times reported in August. Compounding pharmacies are not subject to us Food and Drug Administration regulation and do not need to receive accreditation from the Pharmacy Compounding Accreditation Board, advocates note. In 2012, an unaccredited compounding pharmacy in Massachusetts was found to be the source of an outbreak of fungal meningitis that infected over 700 people and killed 61 people.

In the wake of the incident, advocates have urged states to hold off on using drugs purchased from compounding pharmacies, saying that unregulated brews of the drug could result in botched executions. Advocates have similarly questioned the use of alternatives to pentobarbital, noting that such cocktails are untested and could cause undue pain to the condemned.

Earlier this month, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon halted what was to be the first execution in the United States using propofol, the drug that killed Michael Jackson in 2009. Over the summer, the Missouri Supreme Court had approved the use of the drug in the state’s executions. The state has since said it is investigating purchasing pentobarbital from compounding pharmacies.

On Monday, Mr. Phillips's lawyers asked a federal judge to delay the execution, giving them time to contest the state’s right to use an untested drug combination, AP reported.

Phillips was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter in 1993.

Conrad Murray, Michael Jackson's former doctor, sits in a courtroom during his involuntary manslaughter trial in Los Angeles in 2011. Murray, who was convicted in connection with Jackson's death, was released from jail Monday, about two years early. (Reed Saxon/AP)

Conrad Murray out of jail. What next for Michael Jackson's former doctor? (+video)

By Contributor / 10.28.13

The former cardiologist convicted of accidentally killing Michael Jackson was released from prison Monday, after serving about half of his four-year sentence.

Conrad Murray was convicted in 2011 of involuntary manslaughter, for prescribing Michael Jackson the surgical anesthetic propofol, which officials say killed the "king of pop" in July 2009. California's recent efforts to alleviate inmate overcrowding led to Dr. Murray's release from a Los Angeles jail two years into his sentence.

As for Murray's next steps, his representatives have said he intends to return to medicine, although his medical licenses have been invalidated in all three states where he had been authorized to practice, Reuters reported. Murray's return to the medical field is contingent on an appeal he has filed to overturn his conviction, but a California appellate court is still weighing whether it will even hear the case.

“He's prepared to keep fighting this as long as it takes,” Valerie Wass, Murray's attorney, told Reuters ahead of her client's release.

Other news reports have said that Murray, once an anonymous if exceedingly well-paid doctor, plans to parlay his notoriety into singing stardom.

“Murray thinks he can make it as a singer in the future,” Jeff Adams, Michael Jackson’s former bodyguard, told the New York Daily News.

Murray is also courting publishers to write a book about his time with Jackson, unnamed sources told TMZ. That would put Murray in good company with other noncelebrities who have turned their incarcerations into a book deal. Among them are Amanda Knox, the American acquitted of murdering her roommate in Italy, who upon her release from an Italian prison accepted a $4 million advance for her book, “Waiting to be Heard,” released earlier this year.

Reports of bids for a pop career and million-dollar book deals are in keeping with Murray’s often-baffling forays into the limelight during the past two years. In June, Murray called into "Anderson Cooper 360" to sing on live television a personalized version of "The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot.” He also sent Jackson’s daughter, Paris, a perplexing audio message in which he said he loved her as if she were his own daughter and sang to her Jackson’s song “You Are Not Alone.”

Jackson died four years ago amid preparations for high-profile comeback concerts in London, after years of bad press and mounting debt. Jackson’s doctor, whom concert promoter AEG Live had hired as the superstar’s personal general practitioner during the comeback series for $150,000 a month, almost immediately came under scrutiny, as investigators worked to tease out what his care for his patient had entailed.

In a six-week trial two years later, Murray was found to have prescribed propofol as a sleep aid to Jackson during the months leading up to his death. He was also found to have given the superstar a final dose of the medication hours before he died.

Medical experts testified at the trial that propofol is a surgical sedative, not a sleep aid, and said that Murray had not monitored Jackson in accordance with the protocols for administering the powerful drug. On the morning of Jackson’s death in his Los Angeles mansion, Murray had left the pop icon alone in bed with a propofol IV drip in his arm, prosecutors said.

Murray’s lawyers claimed that Murray had refused Jackson’s requests for propofol the night before his death and that Jackson had taken the sedative on his own.

“To hear Dr. Murray say it, Dr. Murray was a bystander,” Judge Michael Pastor said, before announcing the four-year sentence, the maximum allowed, at the trial. “Talk about blaming the victim. Not only is there not any remorse, there’s umbrage and outrage.”

AEG Live was cleared earlier this month in a civil suit, brought by Jackson's children and his mother, accusing the company of negligently hiring the doctor. The company successfully argued that it had been unaware of Jackson’s dependence on propofol and other sedatives when it signed on to manage Jackson’s concert series and hired a personal doctor for him.

The company “never would have agreed to finance this tour if it knew Michael Jackson was playing Russian roulette every night in his bedroom,” said Marvin Putnam, A.E.G. Live’s lawyer, in his closing statement.

A photo of Andy Lopez is shown at a makeshift memorial at the site of his death in Santa Rosa, Calif., October 24, 2013. Andy, 13, carrying a replica of an assault rifle, was shot and killed Tuesday by sheriff's deputies who believed the gun was real. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

California community mourns 13-year-old killed for holding AK-47 look-alike

By Contributor / 10.25.13

Several hundred people marched more than three miles on Thursday evening from the city hall in Santa Rosa, Calif., to the field where two days before, a 13-year-old boy was fatally shot by law enforcement while he was carrying a toy pellet gun that resembled an AK-47.

Some held candles and signs that read: “What a tragedy, what a travesty,” according to media reports.

On Tuesday afternoon, Andy Lopez was walking home from his friend’s house, toy gun in hand, when a sheriff’s deputy spotted him – and the AK-47 look-alike – from behind. 

From there, everything unfolded in a matter of seconds. 

The deputy and his partner, who were out on regular patrol duty, pulled over their car and took cover behind the vehicle’s doors, according to the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office. 

The patrol car’s overhead light and siren were activated, and law enforcement twice ordered Andy, who was about 20 to 30 feet away, to drop the gun, one witness said, according to an Associated Press report.

Andy began to turn around in the direction of the deputies, barrel of the rifle rising up, one officer said.

Seven bullets struck the young teenager. Sixteen seconds later, the officers called for medial attention, according to Reuters.

Andy died at the scene, and what was thought to be an assault weapon turned out to be a plastic replica, officers discovered. 

The trademark orange tip that federal law requires toy-gun manufacturers to place on the ends of fake guns was missing from the pellet gun, law enforcement reported. Also, a toy handgun was found in Andy’s waistband, but it had the orange tip.   

The two deputies involved in the incident have not been publicly identified and have been placed on administrative leave. 

The deputy who shot the teen is a 24-year veteran, and his partner, who did not fire his weapon, is a new hire, Assistant Sheriff Lorenzo Dueñas told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat news outlet.

The deputy who opened fire was said to have considerable experience with AK-47s. At a Wednesday press conference, law enforcement displayed an actual AK-47 and the airsoft replica held by Andy, making a point about the challenge of discerning real from fake weapons at a distance. 

“It really is a toy gun,” said Ryan Podesta, owner of Thirty First Outfitters, a store in Cotati, Calif., that sells airsoft guns and gear. “It just looks real,” he said. The airsoft rifle, which shoots BB gun pellets, is an increasingly popular toy gun, Mr. Podesta told the Press Democrat in an interview. 

“People have to do something,” said Elbert Howard, a founding member of the Police Accountability Clinic and Helpline of Sonoma County, in an interview with Reuters. “He’s a child, and he had a toy. I see that as an overreaction to shoot him down.”

In 2000, an advisory panel of the US Commission on Civil Rights urged Sonoma County, where Tuesday's shooting took place, to create civilian review boards following eight fatal officer-involved shootings in less than three years, but that recommendation went unheeded, Reuters reported

Andy’s death “is a tragedy on many levels,” Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas said in a statement Wednesday. “As a father of two boys about this age, I can't begin to imagine the grief this family is going through," he said. "My hope is that we can work with the community to help prevent a similar tragedy from happening in the future."

A window display of Daphne Guinness clothing in the Barneys New York store. A young black man recently filed suit against Barneys and the NYPD alleging he was racially profiled after he purchased a $350 belt at the store. (Neilson Barnard/Barneys New York/PRNewsFoto)

Young shopper accuses Barneys New York, NYPD of racial profiling

By Contributor / 10.24.13

A young black man who was stopped by police and briefly held after purchasing an expensive belt at the luxury retail store Barneys New York last spring has filed suit against the New York City Police Department and Barneys, accusing them of racial profiling.

The case has prompted an outcry from a New York-based civil rights group, and further strained the already-fraught relationship between minority groups and the city’s police force.  

“Further action will be planned against the NYPD, [which] has a history of racial profiling against young Blacks and Hispanics,” the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network said. The organization also asked for a meeting with the chief executive officer of Barneys on Thursday in the wake of alleged racial profiling against African-American shoppers, according to the NAN website.

RECOMMENDED: Policing America

The young shopper, Trayvon Christian, 19, filed the suit against both Barneys and the NYPD in Manhattan Supreme Court Monday for an incident that he said occurred on April 29. Mr. Christian, a New York City College of Technology freshman who was 18 at the time, said he had been saving up for a $350 Ferragamo belt he had seen rappers wearing. According to court documents, Christian paid for the belt with his debit card and left Barneys.

A block outside away from the store, Barneys bag in hand, Christian was stopped by two undercover police officers, who asked the young student to show them identification and the contents of his bag, saying that someone from the store had raised concerns over the sale, according to court documents.  

Christian said he showed officers the sales receipt, his debit card, and his identification card. The officers allegedly told Christian that his ID card was false, and “that he could not afford to make such an expensive purchase.”

According to the lawsuit filed, Christian was held at the 19th Precinct for two hours before he was released. No charges were filed against him, the Associated Press reported. The lawsuit alleges that the incident occurred because of “discrimination based on the plaintiff’s race and age as he was a young black American male.”  

The police department told the New York Daily News it is waiting for a formal copy of Christian’s lawsuit, but the officers involved in the April incident are under internal review.

The NYPD said it has received 53 grand larceny complaints for credit card fraud at the Barneys Madison Ave. store where Christian bought the belt, and has made more than 47 arrests, according to the Daily News.

Barneys has tried to distance itself from Christian’s questioning by the police and issued a statement saying “no employee of Barneys New York was involved in the pursuit of any action with the individual other than the sale.” The statement added the store has zero tolerance for any form of discrimination, and extended apologies that any customer would have this experience.

Upon hearing about Christian’s charges against the NYPD and Barneys, another customer, who says she had a similar experience, came forward.

Kayla Phillips, 21, told the New York Daily News she purchased a $2,500 Celine handbag in February, and was then surrounded by police after she left the store. Officers asked Ms. Phillips why she used a debit card without a name on it, she said. After Phillips explained that it was a temporary card, and presented identification to the police, along with another debit card, they let her go.

Phillips said she also plans to sue the police department.

The NYPD has a long antagonistic history with minority groups in the city. Most recently, the police force came under criticism when the Associated Press uncovered an extensive police-spying program that targeted the city’s Muslim population and labeled certain mosques as “terrorist organizations.” Continued debates over the city’s stop-and-frisk policy, which critics say allows police to target blacks and Hispanics, have further exacerbated tensions between the force and civil rights groups. 

RECOMMENDED: Policing America

Student Christian Veatch (bottom) pauses after leaving flowers and a teddy bear outside the high school in Danvers, Mass., Oct. 23, 2013. Police found the body of Colleen Ritzer, a math teacher at the school, in woods near the facility. (Brian Snyder/ Reuters)

Danvers homicide: 14-year-old charged in second US teacher killing this week (+video)

By Contributor / 10.23.13

A 14-year-old high school student has been charged in the death of a math teacher in a suburb of Boston – the second killing of a teacher in the United States this week.

Philip Chism was arraigned in adult court on Wednesday morning for the murder of Colleen Ritzer, whose body was found in the woods near Danvers High School.

Police began an investigation into the disappearances of Philip and Ms. Ritzer after they were reported missing on Tuesday evening.

Blood was discovered in a second-floor bathroom at the school late Tuesday night before her body was found behind the facility, according to the Associated Press.

Shortly after midnight on Wednesday morning, Philip was spotted walking along a road in Topsfield, Mass., a town about five miles away from Danvers.

In court documents, law enforcement officers said they arrested Philip based on statements made by the suspect and corroborating evidence at multiple scenes. They also recovered video surveillance.

Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said there is no reason to believe anyone else was involved and there is no threat to public safety.

“It is apparent that she is a homicide victim,” Mr. Blodgett said at a news conference. “This is a terrible tragedy for the family of Colleen Ritzer and the entire Danvers family.”

Ritzer, who was in her 20s, was a native of Andover, Mass., and an alumna of Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., where she graduated magna cum laude with a degree in math, a minor in psychology, and a secondary-education concentration. 

"She was the nicest teacher anyone could ever have. She always had a warm smile on her face," said Chris Weimert, 17, who took Ritzer’s geometry class last year.

Ritzer had a Twitter account that she updated with homework assignments for her class. In her biography, she wrote: “Math teacher often too excited about the topics I’m teaching.”

Her relatives said she had a passion for teaching and mentored each one of her students, the AP reported.

Mary Duffy, who has lived next door to the Ritzers in Andover since the family moved there more than two decades ago, said she had known Colleen Ritzer from the time she was a baby. Ritzer’s only ambition in life was to be a teacher, Ms. Duffy said.

“She was a very respected, loved teacher,” Blodgett said.

Ritzer’s former student, Chris, said he knew the suspect, Philip, from seeing him around school. Philip “seemed like a good kid,” Chris said. “It really threw the whole town of Danvers a curveball.”

Kyle Cahill, a junior at Danvers High School, said he knew Philip from the soccer team. The 14-year-old moved to Danvers from Tennessee before the school year started, and he was a top goal-scorer on the school’s junior varsity team, Kyle said.

“He wasn’t violent at all. He was really the opposite of aggressive,” Kyle said.

He said there was a soccer team dinner Tuesday night that Philip skipped, and team members had wondered where he was.

Philip’s name was not initially published because he is a minor. The defense attorney argued for the proceedings to be closed and her client’s name to stay hidden because of his age, but the judge denied the request.

Philip is being held without bail and is due back in court on Nov. 22.

Another teacher was shot in an unrelated incident at a Nevada middle school on Monday. Michael Landsberry was trying to talk down a 12-year-old student, armed with a semiautomatic handgun, when the student pulled the trigger, killing the teacher.

Both incidents occur nearly a year after a gunman opened fire on students and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., killing 20 students and six adults. The Dec. 14 shooting sparked a nationwide gun-control debate.

All public schools in Danvers were closed on Wednesday, and students planned a candlelight vigil for Wednesday evening.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Boston Marathon suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev smiles after winning the 2010 New England Golden Gloves Championship in Lowell, Mass. on Feb. 17, 2010. Mr. Tsarnaev, who was killed during a police chase several days after the April 2013 bombings, is suspected in a triple homicide outside Boston in 2011, court documents show. (Julia Malakie/ AP Photo/ The Lowell Sun/ File )

Marathon bombing: Elder Tsarnaev a suspect in triple slaying, documents show (+video)

By Contributor / 10.23.13

Court documents filed this week in the case against alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev provide the first official confirmation that authorities consider his older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed while fleeing law enforcement officials days after the deadly April bombing, a suspect in a triple homicide outside Boston on Sept. 11, 2011.

According to the documents, Ibragim Todashev, an acquaintance of Tamerlan Tsarnaev who was fatally shot at his Orlando home in May while being questioned by an FBI agent and two Massachusetts state troopers, said Tamerlan took part in the 2011 killings in Waltham, a Boston suburb. Authorities said Mr. Todashev became violent during questioning.

Todashev was a mixed martial arts fighter who had become acquainted with Tamerlan Tsarnaev through the sport.

The three men killed in the Waltham slayings – Brendan Mess, Erik Weissman, and Raphael Teken – were found in an apartment with their necks slit and their bodies covered with marijuana. One of the three men, Mr. Mess, was a boxer, and Tsarnaev’s friend, according to the New York Times.  

Monday’s court filing was an attempt by the prosecution to block Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s defense team from getting certain information from authorities, including investigative documents on the Waltham murders, according to the Associated Press.

"Any benefit to [Dzhokhar] Tsarnaev of knowing more about the precise 'nature and extent' of his brother's involvement does not outweigh the potential harm of exposing details of an ongoing investigation into an extremely serious crime, especially at this stage of the proceeding," prosecutors wrote in the filing.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s lawyers have been seeking to force the government to share investigative materials pertaining to the 2011 Waltham murders with the defense. Mr. Tsarnaev’s lawyers say the elder Tsarnaev’s role in the murders might be a mitigating factor in the case against Dzhokhar, according to Reuters.

Prosecutors countered this, saying the disclosure of the materials could jeopardize the ongoing investigation of the triple homicide. Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s criminal history will be relevant, if at all, only at a possible future sentencing hearing, the prosecution said, according to AP reports.

The Tsarnaev brothers are suspected of planning and carrying out the twin bombings near the Boston Marathon finish line on April 15 that killed three people and wounded more than 260 others.

Three days after the bombings, the Tsarnaev brothers allegedly killed Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Sean Collier.

The pair then went on to engage in a gun battle with police in Watertown, Mass., which resulted in Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s death, and Dzhokhar’s escape.  

Police captured the younger Tsarnaev brother after a daylong manhunt, during which most of Boston was on lockdown.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev faces 30 federal charges, including using a weapon of mass destruction – two homemade pressure cooker bombs – and 16 other charges. He pleaded not guilty to all charges at his arraignment on July 10. 

US Attorney General Eric Holder is set to rule in January if Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will face the death penalty, if found guilty.  

The Tsarnaevs were ethnic Chechens. Authorities found Dzhokhar, seriously wounded, in a boat into which he scrawled a note: "We Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all," according to a report by the AP.  Authorities say he also wrote several phrases accusing the US government of "killing our innocent civilians." 

Media reports have said the younger Tsarnaev came under the influence of his elder brother, who described himself as "very religious" and felt ill at ease in the United States. 

"I don't have a single American friend," Tamerlan Tsarnaev reportedly told photographer Johannes Hirn, who was taking his picture during his boxing training. "I don't understand them." 

A unidentified woman holds her son after picking him up at Sparks High School, where some students were taken after a shooting that left two dead at Sparks Middle School on Monday. (Andy Barro/Reno Gazette Journal/AP)

Nevada school shooting: slain math teacher hailed as 'true hero' (+video)

By Contributor / 10.22.13

On Monday morning at a Nevada middle school the usual sound of a school bell was supposed to usher students back to class after a weeklong fall break. But the bell was preceded by the noise of gunshots

At 7:15 a.m., a student opened fire with a semiautomatic handgun at Sparks Middle School, injuring two 12-year-old classmates, and killing one teacher, according to media reports. The 8th-grade math teacher and former Marine, Michael Landsberry, was trying to talk down the shooter as 20 to 30 students looked on, before he was fatally shot. 

Authorities have not yet provided a motive for the lone shooter, or where the shooter got the gun, the Associated Press reported.

"It's too early to say whether he was targeting specific people or just going on an indiscriminate shooting spree," Reno Deputy Police Chief Tom Robinson told CNN.

Jose Cazares, a student at Sparks Middle School, said he saw the armed student shoot two classmates before the shooter turned, and aimed the gun at Jose’s chest. Mr. Landsberry then stepped between Jose and the shooter, Jose told NBC’s "Today" show on Tuesday, according to a report from the Associated Press.

"He was telling him to stop and put the gun down. Then the kid, he yelled out 'No!' Like, he was yelling at him, and he shot him," Jose said. "He was calm, he was holding out his hand like, 'Put the gun in my hand.' " And then the shooter pulled the trigger.

Jose and his friends ran to hide from the gunman. The shooter heard one of Jose’s friends crying and threatened to shoot them, if they told anyone. The shooter then fired several bullets out the window, before apparently running out of bullets, Jose said. The boys lied to the shooter, telling him they didn't see anything, and then the shooter ran off.

Deputy Chief Robinson said 150 to 200 personnel secured the school and the surrounding area after the shooting was reported.

Law enforcement officials searched the area with bomb dogs, Robinson said. Agents from the FBI and US Department of Homeland Security were assisting in the investigation.

“I just want to reiterate again that the city itself is very safe and this I just an isolated incident. But it’s very, very tragic,” said Sparks Mayor Geno Martini during a late-morning news conference on Monday.

The two injured students, both 12-year-old boys, were taken to the nearby Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno, Nev. One was shot in the shoulder, the other in the abdomen, according to the Reno Gazette Journal.

As the city recovers from the shock of the shooting, Landsberry has been praised for his role in Monday’s events.

“In my estimation, he is a hero.... We do know he was trying to intervene,” Robinson told the Gazette Journal on Monday.

Jose's mother expressed gratitude for Landsberry, who she said had never taught her son.

"He sacrificed his life to take our kids into safety," Marisela Cazares told "Today." ''I thank him for that. He's a true hero."

Landsberry taught math at Sparks Middle School, and also served in the Nevada National Guard. The teacher received his bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Nevada, Reno, in 2001, and reportedly loved teaching children.

The Gazette Journal reported that Landsberry liked Batman so much that some of his students used it as his nickname.

“The kids loved him,” said Chanda Landsberry, Michael Landsberry’s sister-in-law.

On Landsberry’s class website, there was a picture of a bear, and the one class rule: “Thou Shall Not Annoy Mr. L….. A very good skill to learn is reading people and their moods. We will learn a lot from each other this year and what bothers us the most. I do not like sending people to E4 [a type of detention], I prefer to handle the situation myself. One of my goals is to earn your respect while you earn mine. I believe that with mutual respect that the classroom environment will run smoothly.” 

On the site, there were also two pictures of Landsberry: one at a mountain overlook, the other in front of a military vehicle, a gun across his body.

Prior to teaching, Landsberry served two tours in Afghanistan with the Marines, according to the Gazette Journal.

“He proudly served his country and was proudly defending the students at his school,” said Mayor Martini.

“To hear he was trying to protect those kids, that he stepped up and tried to stop the situation, doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Ms. Landsberry. “He was trained to help.”

Michael Landsberry is survived by his wife, Sharon Landsberry, and two stepdaughters, Ms. Landsberry’s children from a previous relationship.

A candlelight vigil to honor the victims will take place in front of Sparks Middle School at 7 p.m. on Wednesday. The Patriot Guard and various veteran groups will participate in an honor guard, the Gazette Journal reported.

Classes and after-school activities were canceled at Sparks Middle School for the rest of the week. Counselors will be on-hand to work with staff members and the school’s 700 7th-  and 8th-grade students, Reuters reported.

"It's not supposed to happen here," said Chanda Landsberry. "We're just Sparks — little Sparks, Nev. It's unreal."

The violence in Sparks erupted nearly a year after a gunman opened fire on students and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., killing 20 students and six adults. The Dec. 14 shooting sparked a nationwide gun-control debate.

In 2006, a 14-year-old boy opened fire in Pine Middle School in Reno. No one was killed, although two students were injured, according to the Gazette-Journal. The shooter had researched the 1999 Columbine High School shooting rampage a week before he opened fire on his classmates, the paper reported.

The Pine Middle School shooter was tried as a juvenile and was sentenced to house arrest.

Sparks is located in the western part of the state near the California border, just east of Reno.

The deep civic divide over guns was the focus of a recent civil dialogue hosted by The Christian Science Monitor in partnership with the Public Conversations Project and the Mantle Project.

Police secure the scene near Sparks Middle School after a shooting Monday. Two people were killed and two wounded, authorities reported. (Kevin Clifford/ AP Photo)

Nevada middle school shooting: teacher killed trying to protect students (+video)

By Contributor / 10.21.13

A teacher was killed and two students were critically wounded when a student opened fire at a Nevada middle school Monday morning before the shooter fatally turned the gun on himself, police said. Law enforcement officials secured the area around Sparks Middle School where the shooting took place without firing any shots. 

The two injured in the shooting were taken to Renown Regional Medical Center in nearby Reno, Nev. One of the individuals is already out of surgery, and the other is doing well, according to media reports

The teacher – eighth-grade math teacher Michael Landsberry, according to media reports – was shot and killed while trying to protect students. 

Students and staff at Sparks Middle School and nearby Risley Elementary School – which are both in Sparks, Nev. – were evacuated to Sparks High School. Both the middle and elementary schools will be closed Monday, said Charles Rahn, Washoe County School District spokesman.

“We came flying down here to get our kids,” Mike Fiorica, whose nephew attends the middle school, told the Associated Press. “It’s really chaotic. You can imagine how parents are feeling. You don’t know if your kid’s OK.”

Reno Deputy Police Chief Tom Robinson said 150 to 200 personnel secured the school and the surrounding area after the shooting was reported at 7:15 a.m. Pacific time, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Kyle Nucum, a student at Sparks Middle School, thought the shooting was a firecracker when he first heard a loud popping noise.

“Then the student fired a shot at the teacher, and the teacher fell and everybody ran away, and we ran across the field to get somewhere safe," Kyle said during an interview published on the Gazette-Journal website. "While we were running, we heard about four or five more shots,” Kyle said. He escaped the chaos inside a nearby home.

Michelle Hernandez, another student at the middle school, said she saw the shooter on Monday morning, the Gazette-Journal reported. “I heard him saying, ‘Why you people making fun of me, why you laughing at me?’ ” she said.

The Gazette-Journal also spoke with Seth Hinchberger, an eighth-grader at Sparks Middle School, who said the shooter “pulled out a weapon and just shot it. And scared all of us, and we just started running.”

The students then ran into a hall, Seth said. “We piled up and put the girls in the back and the guys in the front ... for the safety of the girls,” he said. “He came over to us and started aiming at all of us.... Then he saw a teacher in the window and shot the window trying to get him. Shot the window twice.”

Mr. Robinson told parents they can now rest assured. “The schools are safe. The rest of the city is safe,” he said.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) extended his thoughts and prayers to those affected. “I was deeply saddened to learn of the horrific shooting at Sparks Middle School this morning. My administration is receiving regular updates and the Nevada Highway Patrol is assisting at the scene," he said in a statement.

Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada also issued a letter of comfort to those affected.

“My condolences go out to the victims’ families and my thoughts are with the teachers, administrators, parents and students at Sparks Middle School who have experienced a traumatic morning. No words of condolence could possibly ease the pain, but I hope it is some small comfort that Nevada mourns with them. I stand by to be of any assistance if there is anything that can be done and I will continue to monitor the situation,” the statement read.

The violence in Sparks erupted nearly a year after a gunman opened fire on students and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., killing 20 students and six adults. The Dec. 14 shooting sparked a nationwide gun-control debate.

In 2006, a 14-year-old boy opened fire in Pine Middle School in Reno. No one was killed, although two students were injured, according to the Gazette-Journal. The shooter had researched the 1999 Columbine High School shooting rampage a week before he opened fire on his classmates, the paper reported.

The Pine Middle School shooter was tried as a juvenile and was sentenced to house arrest.

Sparks is located in the western part of the state near the California border, just east of Reno.

The deep civic divide over guns was the focus of a recent civil dialogue hosted by The Christian Science Monitor in partnership with the Public Conversations Project and the Mantle Project.

Stephen Rakes smiles after greeting an acquaintance outside the liquor store he once owned in the South Boston neighborhood on June 6, 2013. Authorities say Rakes, who was on the witness list for the racketeering trial of reputed mobster James "Whitey" Bulger, was poisoned. (Michael Dwyer/ AP Photo/ File )

Whitey Bulger trial: Cyanide is ruled in death of would-be prosecution witness (+video)

By Contributor / 10.21.13

The death of a potential witness against James “Whitey” Bulger trial who had hoped to testify in the mobster's trial this summer was caused by cyanide poisoning, the Massachusetts Medical Examiner’s Office has concluded in an official autopsy report. 

Prosecutors allege that William Camuti, a longtime friend and associate of Mr. Bulger's, slipped cyanide into a cup of iced coffee he gave to Stephen “Stippo” Rakes when the two met up at a McDonald’s parking lot in July.

Mr. Camuti, who allegedly owed Mr. Rakes money and lured him to the meeting where he gave Rakes the poison beverage, then drove his body around for several hours before finally depositing him in a wooded area in a Boston suburb, prosecutors say. 

Camuti, who according to law enforcement officials previously had admitted to the cyanide poisoning, had previously been charged with attempted murder, misleading police, and unlawful disposition of human remains, connected to his alleged role in Rakes’s death.  

MaryBeth Long, a spokeswoman for the Middlesex District Attorney’s office, said prosecutors now intend to file additional charges against Camuti based on the official report. 

In September, The Boston Globe reported that Camuti admitted his guilt in Rakes's murder after he attempted to commit suicide. 

The prosecution has a detailed case against Camuti that includes GPS records that place his car in the woods where Rakes’s body was found. Prosecutors also say they found evidence of Camuti inquiring about the purchase of potassium cyanide in his e-mail account. 

Potassium cyanide is relatively easy to obtain and can be purchased online. 

A judge ordered Camuti held without bail.

Camuti, the former owner of the Loan Depot, a Boston mortgage lender, was convicted in 1993 of 11 counts of mail fraud, according to the Globe. 

Authorities said Rakes’s death was not related to the Bulger case, though it was the kind of occurrence that typified Bulger’s reign over South Boston’s organized crime rings in the 1970s and 1980s.

According to reports, Rakes openly despised Bulger, and blamed him for seizing control of his South Boston liquor store to use as a headquarters for Boston’s Irish mob in 1984.  

“The day I see him [Bulger] in a box, not breathing, will be better,” Rakes told the Associated Press in April. 

Rakes said Bulger forced him to sell his store at gunpoint in front of Rakes’s two daughters for a fraction of what the store was worth. 

A former Bulger associate, Kevin Weeks, disputed Rakes’s account at Bulger's trial. According to Mr. Weeks, Rakes was trying to shake down the gangsters, a move that provoked Bulger, a notoriously short-tempered mobster, to pull his gun, NBC reported

Rakes was set to testify against Bulger to rebut Weeks’s version of events, but was removed from the witness list at the last minute for unknown reasons. 

Several days after he was supposed to testify, Rakes met up with Camuti in Waltham, Mass., a Boston suburb, and was killed.

The next day, a jogger found Rakes’s body in a wooded area of Lincoln, a nearby suburb, about 30 minutes away from the city. 

According to the AP, Bulger – who was convicted of crimes ranging from murder to extortion to money laundering – will effectively get a life in prison sentence when he is sentenced in November in Massachusetts. He plans to appeal the decision.

Bulger also faces murder charges in Florida and Oklahoma, both death penalty states.  

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